El desván de un anticuario. Arturo Michelena (1893)

lunes, 12 de abril de 2010

Imposing, Transposing, Erasing: The Making of a "Revolutionary" Caracas (1998 - 2010)

Vista de la ciudad hacia el valle de Antímano. Meinhard Retemeyer (1826).

Dear don Arístides:

It goes without saying: the city is a great communicational media. In its deep fabric are written the messages of all epochs, everything endless generations of citizens aimed to express thr
ough time. From their sum emerges its divine palimpsest, its trace of identity. Therefore the importance of every single urban layer.
In Caracas, the historical layers of urban development, Pre-Columbian, Colonial, Federal, Modern and Contemporary, all grew along the Caracas valley and coastline at the footsteps of El Avila Mountain from the east to the west, spreading vastly over the smaller valleys and the surrounding hills. Regrettably, important parts of these historical layers were erased along the centuries. The Indigenous Caracas is practically imperceptible today —lasting only basically in the urban nomenclature—, while the Colonial Caracas is so blurred that it is nowadays the most tenuous colonial city of all of Latin America, so strong was the sweep that modernity brought since the 1930s. Some sustain that amnesia is the local collective malfunction… But, is it really so?
Notwithstanding the lagoons, Caracas, at the end of the Twentieth-century, managed to end up with a very strong image. An image emerging from the amalgam of all its previous horizons with a genius loci anchored in the local geographical qualities and whiteness of the sunlight, and with the architectural products of a highly-productive modern era. Thus, Caracas arrived to the turn of the century with a highly defined urban profile. And it was exactly then, in 1998, when Hugo Chavez was elected president of the country, and began what is known as the Fifth Republic, a.k.a. the Bolivarian Revolution of Venezuela.So here have a contemporary Latin American city at the event of facing for more than a decade a radical change in the national political system. A city that had unexpectedly to encounter a "revolution"… Therefore, what happened in its since 1998 with the Revolution? Were there any Transpositions, any Impositions, or any —again— new kinds of Erasings within its urban fabric?
It is been said that for the break with history —so dear to all revolutions—to take place, it is crucial to start anew. It is demanding to break with the traditional expressions of the city: disrupt its languages, tear down its icons, change its codes, substitute its urban heroes, re-name all things known… At the beginning, everyone expected that the Chavez administration would embrace the pre-revolutionary city forms and traditions, leaving them untouched to start building its own new socialist urban interventions, as did all the previous Venezuelan governments and would do any democratic government in the world. But he did exactly the opposite.
I am planning to explore these confrontations. I look forward to observe what happens to the evolution of a modern Latin American city at the event of confronting the upcoming of a different political ideology that wishes to be expressed in the urban realm. I will also intend to review the transnational influences ─if any─ placed upon Caracas by other revolutionary cities in the region, like La Habana, or perhaps by politically-close totalitarian regimes far from Venezuela. For doing this, I am going to present and discuss some examples of what has happened in the Caracas urban fabric during the now 11-year-old Bolivarian Revolution.

The other Ville lumiére

Torre de la Catedral de Caracas.

"There are times when there is history,
and fragments of times when there is not"
Charles Peguy.[1]

Swiss writer Robert Walser said once: "The color white, for instance, smiles".[2] And how brightly the city Caracas smiles when is hit by the sunlight! White is the capital´s local color. Climbing the slope that leads to the capital, coming up from the Caribbean Sea, we are more than half a mile closer to the zenith. In the high valley, the light, already white at the coastline, becomes atmospherical, diffuse… blinding. The Caraqueños live, to say the least, in franc saturation.[3]

A city builds its image in time, sometimes silently. Caracas was never characterized, as were many other cities in the region, or rest of the country —particularly Maracaibo, Venezuela´s second city—, for being tropically colorful. The light in the high valley is strikingly white. The sun, immutable, bathes it all on the landscape with its extended warm mantle, like "and emulsion of grace".[4]

White. Midday. Caracas. The city´s architectures of all epochs, starting from the white tower of the Caracas Cathedral (1567), at their first contact with the outside, have always been irretrievably dissolved in the air, performing a constant optical metamorphosis within the shining atmosphere. Strong colors, so typical of the popular architecture of Venezuela —also to be found in the capital, although they are not generally the case—, inevitably wash out. First neutralized by the light and then by the rain, the most vivid of colors whiten and blur until they practically disappear. There is nothing to do about it. Caracas architectures, once built, plunge, are dissolved —and covered— right away by a transparent splendor that annoys them.[5] The situation, as once wrote Alain Buisine talking about the colors of the Venetian summer, is that "too much light dazzles and blinds, turning off the most sumptuous of polychromies" (Buisine 1998).[6]

Things from the summer, things from the sun, who baptizes things differently in every place on earth. As if someone had sentenced one day, "white you are and into white you will turn", the city returns inevitably to its natural color over time. That is why it can be said that Caracas is another type of ciudad luz. Another kind of White City, of tropical and of Caribbean city, another kind of ville lumière. High in its valley or flush by the coastline: the hazy city of limestone architectures.From the beginning the inhabitants of the valley of Caracas worked with the raw material that was at hand on the grounds. What is like to say, they were getting ready to paint the city. The forests´ timber, the valley´s clays, the creeks and rivers´ gray sands, the mountains´ white and blue stones. On the builder´s command ─of the first as of the actual─ were the granite quarries (from the Avila Mountain), the clay (from Catia and from Prado de María), the sandy grounds (of Chacao) and the limestone (from the Caleras de Sancho in the hills of La Vega).[7] A "Geography of Color."[8]

The land in Caracas produces very precise colors. It is a "pearly" land, to say the least, rich in grays and in off-whites, sometimes pink, sometimes of pinkish reds. The urban fabric thus acquires a clear color palette that is inherent to its basic materials. Later, in the modern city, limestone also becomes a very important component of the building material that marked the most the Caracas coloratura in the modern times: concrete. Little by little "cement displaced the traditional materials, until covering completely with its shades of gray-white the farthest confines of the urban mare magnum".[9] This is the basis of what we want to call -remembering Goethe-, the "Caracas Theory of Color". And a city, laboriously produced for centuries, ─it must be said once again─, is the greatest of all works of art. Caracas is not Maracaibo, neither it is Willemstad, nor Quito, nor San Juan, or Cartagena. It is neither red, nor orange, nor green, nor blue, nor indigo, or violet. It has its own color psychology. In its urban memory is treasured a certain form of haughty beauty, like that of a white neo-Hispanic cathedral tower, severe, elegant, calcareous, unique, a real art in which "the absence of color is not an absence of color".[10]Or at least, it was so until 1998.


Iglesia de San Francisco (1990s)

"To impose: From the Latin imponere,
of in, on, and ponere, to put.
To attribute falsely".[11]

Subtle as it is, the image of Caracas has been the subject of many different manipulations along its history. Something that is not an exclusive practice of the present, although in the last decade it has reached levels never before seen. Such manipulations appear under the forms of impositions, transpositions and even of disappearances or simple eradications. The testimonies that either bother or support the moment that is lived are changed with little concern for the historical reality or the urban memory. Let´s begin to review some recent urban impositions.

In the middle of the last century, for example, the main monuments of the city were all painted uniformly in white, agreeing with the colors of the party of government of the time, following the recommendation of a cultural adviser. To this extreme whiteness followed ─as a reaction and as propaganda, both political─, the carnival of colors imposed to the Caracas Historic Center during the current administration, allegedly trying to "to give back" to the capital city a popular appearance, which, as we have seen before, it has never never had. The same thing happens with the imposition ─past and recent─ of radical changes in the urban nomenclature. The urban spaces in the capital ─and in the whole country─ are being now constantly re-named. This is always done with the same objective: to present falsely as new what already existed, and to make believe that it is a new governmental work.

This instability of the nomenclature, instead of being yielding logically with the passage of time and the increase of the historical conscience of the people, has given step now to a new phase where changes are being made with franc impudence, and which might be labeled as Nomenklatura.

Caracas, in the Chavez times, as once said Joseph Brodsky about Saint Petersburg, is also a "re-named city".[12] Parks, plazas, avenues and monuments unexpectedly dawn one morning with the flaming signboards of names that the community didn´t know or approved, names that now (forcedly) celebrate generally the indigenous, revolutionary or Independence War pasts, in damage of the city´s Colonial or Modern pasts (Waraira Repano for Avila, Kutagua for Columbus, Parque Alí Primera for Parque del Oeste, Parque Ezequiel Zamora for Parque El Calvario). Nevertheless, invariably, in spite of the huge expenses in new billboards and letterings of all kinds made by the Bolivarian government, people keep calling commonly the places like they did before… a little like what happened in Leningrad during the Russian revolution.

The memory of the Caraqueños also turns into a kind of résistance, or of urban subversion. The Caracas of all times, in spite of the new impositions, "keeps living in its people beyond time and political changes".[13]Similar thing happens with the restorations undertaken since 2003 like a big cultural revolution ─highly effectist─ by the officialist Alcaldia de Caracas, and by its heritage office, Fundapatrimonio. The main monuments of the Historic Center, both Colonial and Modern, have all been re-painted in bright colors. The city unexpectedly has been trapped in "a blind, epidermic passion, in a populist architectural carnival that threatens all its monuments".[14]

Nobody can deny the great need of restoration of the whole center of the city, for years in a state of abandonment and practical ruin, but using it as an excuse to build a gigantic billboard for the revolution has been, on one hand, a lost opportunity, and on the other, a factor of cultural des-information for the population. The Bolivarian revolution is, therefore, "a painted revolution", that believes thoroughly in what sentenced Tom Wolfe in The Painted Word (1975): "Not seeing is believing, but believing is seing".[15]

This phrase immediately came to our mind when we listened to the recent public declarations of "a member of the office in charge of the remodeling of the 23 de Enero neighborhood, when he assured, after having changed the original polychromies of the famous modern 1950s housing complex that ´this was the original color of the façades of Carlos Raúl Villanueva's architectural project", or when some years ago "the blocks of El Silencio complex (1942-1945) were all painted in orange, and at the moment it was also said that this was the original appearance of the buildings, built in the 1940s during the government of Isaias Medina Angarita", both historically false informations.[16] That is to say, what was white, well now is orange although it was never orange before, and what was beige is now yellow and what was once a polychromy, now is red… and so forth.

On the other hand, those Republican churches, those Federal buildings, those Neocolonial temples, those Modern architectures by the best local architecture masters that in the past exposed their architectures under the sun with the quiet beauty of their historical expressions, with the application of the new epidermal colors make Caracas look, indeed… as another city. As the city of propaganda.

But not as happened in other moments in history, when architecture and urbanism were used to create a real strong image to empower the State (like in the Berlin of the III Reich, the Eur of Mussolini, the Soviet cities or ─in the same city of Caracas, but in the 1950s─, under the "Nuevo Ideal Nacional" of Marcos Pérez Jiménez, but instead to achieve a faster, more automatic and easier Propaganda City.There they are, to name some of the most famous cases, the Correo de Carmelitas (the old house of the Counts of Tovar, 1780s, remodeled in 1932), that since always depicted beige tones and now is painted bright yellow, and the Iglesia de San Francisco (1593), traditionally of white color, and today grey and orange. This important church, for example, the second most important in Caracas following the Cathedral, was modified in 1873 by the architect Juan Hurtado Manrique to build a new façade project that would harmonize with the University building placed next to it.

Hurtado Manrique simply stated, as a good Nineteenth-century architect: “I know how to imitate stone”. For him, in Caracas, like in Vienna and in Paris, at the turn of the century the friezes were sublime surfaces full of metaphorical will. Walls wanted to be autonomous of any constructive logic and, as embroidered surfaces, aimed to be applied to the architecture as panels decorated by the architect´s hand. The white church walls simulated authentic ashlars, pilasters and cornices made of stone, and dramatized by the chiaroscuro… Une architecture parlante.
Because of this, the strident renovation executed in 2004, erasing the trace of the false ashlars and painting the church in gray and yellow and the southern façade of the parochial curia in red that look like extracted from a vulgar catalogue of painting for exteriors, is nothing but the conceptual denial of the 1873s project and the antithesis of the temple´s superb and austere interiors".[17]After the polemic transformation of the images of these two first important landmarks of the Caracas Historic Center, the impact over the public opinion was so big… that the program, instead of being rectified, received a stronger support from the Alcaldia to continue in the same line. From then on followed: the façades of the Palacio de las Academias (1577) and of the old Palacio de la Exposición (1883), both before in white and fair gray and now perfectly tuned with the recently painted tones of the contiguous Iglesia de San Francisco; the Iglesia del Sagrado Corazón de Jesús (dating from 1892 and rebuilt between 1916-32 by the engineer Luis Muñoz Tébar), once in a creme color and now a sky blue; the Panteón Nacional (a 1929 project by architect Manuel Mujica Millán), originally beige and sienna, and now in pink and green, and the Concejo Municipal de Caracas (1900s), originally also in a creme tone and re-painted in gray and a strong canary yellow.

The public polemic reappeared in 2006, when Fundapatrimonio finished ─as we mentioned before─ the restoration process of El Silencio complex, a vast urban renewal that introduced a new housing and retail neighborhood in the center of the city. This complex "defines, with its protective perimetral blocks, porticoed streets and big internal courtyards functioning as vital centers (…) a collective monument of inestimable heritage value. After many years of decay, heavy modifications practiced to the great majority of the apartments and a very bad maintenance, Fundapatrimonio undertook an ambitious restoration project".[18] Lamentably, after the restoration came the well-known change of the original color of the blocks´ facades, modifying totally the perception of the urban space. With the general public´s rejection of this action, everyone turned to the architect´s daughter, architect Paulina Villanueva, president of the Fundación Villanueva, who publicly declared that the color that her father applied to the buildings was originally a ton sur ton, "similar to that of an egg shell".[19] But her advice was unheard, and the buildings were covered in a tangerine-like tone.

Soon, with renovated strength, changes continued. The Teatro Nacional (Alejandro Chataing, 1905), originally in beige and off-white, was painted with a striking brick color, that plus, was randomly sponged (besides, the old glass and iron marquee over its main entrance has not been put back in place); meanwhile, three of the main architectural monuments of the most important Nineteenth-century park of Caracas, the Parque El Calvario (1873): the Arco de la Federación (Hurtado Manrique, 1905), the Pasaje Santa-Inés (c.1900s) and the Capilla de Lourdes (Hurtado Manrique, 1895), have left behind the snowy shades that made them once detach once as sculptures amidst the green forest of El Calvario´s hill. They have become now: the first, polychromous; the second, covered with an absurd lilac hue; and the third, orange, according to the unilateral decisions taken by Fundapatrimonio´s restoration team, decisions that a "technical school" of communal artisans, quickly trained by the Alcaldía in the neighboring communities, rushed to execute (erasing here also, by the way, many of the original Beaux-Arts architectural detailing).

This transforming fanaticism and the desire to impose a new image ended up in going beyond the surfaces of the patrimonial buildings to reach the close-by urban fabric. After the conclusion of the Nuevo Circo de Caracas´ restoration (Alejandro Chataing, 1919), where the neo-Moorish bull ring was painted with strong primary yellows and reds, (colors already politically conscious because they are the colors of the actual government´s party, the PSUV), immediately, the Alcaldía de Caracas ─to who must have exceeded a good reserve of yellow painting from its last restorations in the surroundings─, started to spread the same mustard yellow on buildings of all epochs, covering with a repetitive monochromy what before was the genuine expression of the architectural local languages.

To end this list, we must mention here what happened to the modern housing complex of the 23 de Enero (Villanueva, 1950s). As a paradigm of modernity, the façades of these popular housing units were converted into big abstract murals based in color-plane compositions, commissioned to artists like Mateo Manaure and Victor Valera (who also collaborated in the Ciudad Universitaria de Caracas). In spite of the area´s general decay, the compositions lasted for more than half a century. In January 2010, a great deal of the façades of the blocks were changed to plain red and white combinations. According to the testimony of writer Adriana Villanueva, the architect´s granddaughter: "This Rojo rojito that reverberates like a bull´s blood, is the emblematic color of the Revolutionary government. My souvenir is that the 23 de Enero´s façades have never been of a single color, but always covered with polychromies. That was their charm. In the archives of Fundación Villanueva we founded some photos of the Banco Obrero dating from when the 23 de Enero opened, and there was the red, but along with that red the façade was dressed in blue, green, orange, gray".[20] On the contrary, now "the vibration brought by the game of colors of the artists´ works is no longer there. Something quite distant from the spirit of Villanueva's modernity".[21]Regarding all these cases of repeated impositions done by the Alcaldía de Caracas, the Instituto del Patrimonio Cultural, the maximum heritage authority of the country, still keeps silence.


The Monument to María Lionza (f. Gregory Vertullo - Archivo Fundación de la Memoria Urbana).

"To transpose: From the Latin transponder.
To put in a different place, to move. To change place".[22]

While Caracas was chromatically changing in a radical way, during this same decade appeared a second form of manipulation of the built environment that intended to transpose the contents of the city´s monuments and urban places.

The three most paradigmatic examples of this have been the case of the Ciudad Universitaria de Caracas´ Monument to María Lionza (Alejandro Colina, 1951), the case of the Museo Leander, which started construction in 2004 in the Parque del Este (Roberto Burle Marx, 1959-1964), and the case of a proposed Bicentennial Obelisk, hypothetically to be erected in the Plaza Bolívar (1567). All these cases relate works that are Historic National Monuments, being the Universidad Central de Venezuela in addition a listed World Cultural Heritage (2002, UNESCO), and the Parque del Este a Heritage Site in risk nominated in the Watch List 2010 by the World Monuments Fund.

Each of these landmarks has a spatial, urban, symbolic and historical lecture of their own that is consubstantial to them. Any change or any addition would alter their original lecture and message. But in spite of this, they had to face three very serious attempts of transposition of their contents. The objective, in all of these actions, was evidently to transpose their meanings and put the city into the service of the Bolivarian revolution´s ideals.

The Monument to María Lionza (a Venezuelan Indian goddess and queen) belongs to the Universidad Central de Venezuela´s art collection. Since the contruction of the university, it was placed in front of the campus´ stadiums, an peripheral location that had always been very much discussed. It was originally commissioned to the sculptor Alejandro Colina for the National Olympic Games of 1951, and Villanueva, the university architect, placed the monument at the stadiums´ entrance, close to the modern highway, the Autopista del Este. In that place, Yara, the Indian goddess, stood in the center of the great universitary realm (the university´s rental area develops to the north of the campus). "With her arms raised, she joined the light poles of the stadiums performing a vertical and victorious gesture to carry the Olympic fire on her hands".[23]

The site in the highway with time turned into a place of cult. The numerous worshippers of the goddess avoided the obstacles to reach the monument and place flowers and ex votos on it, and all this practice ended up to become part of the ritual itself. The now consecrated site contributed with its great urban monumentality. The statue emerged in the highway as the magnetizing pivot of the site´s energies, linking the north and the south: the Ciudad Universitaria and its Rental Zone.It is important to remark here that Autopista del Este in Caracas is not considered a despicable backyard. Since its construction in the 1950s, it represents a substantial role in the pride of a city whose most important cultural offer for mankind is its modernity. A longitudinal concrete monument, the highway was sensually, sculpturally, voluptuously laid out in the Caracas valley. Its muscled formal loops, made to be toured at great speed, when seen from the slowness of a pedestrian are re-empowered as an avant-garde promenade, becoming ideal for the contemporary perception of its mega structural landscape. There, the Monument to Maria Lionza became the urban vortex of this grand Circo Maximo Caraqueño.[24]

In no other place the statue would have had a bigger visibility, nor would it have been better attached to the history of the city ─to that of the university as well as to that of Caracas…─ Nevertheless, at the beginning of 2004, a rumor started that the statue´s inner structure (which is not made of solid stone, but of artificial stone held by an inner iron structure) was about to collapse. On June 6th, 2004, as wrote the news agency Venpres, announced: "Today the emblematic statue of María Lionza, placed in the highway Francisco Fajardo, dawned destroyed. The rupture was produced at the level of the heroine´s waist, and all its superior part fell apart".[25] Many explanations were given for this collapse… Its fall unleashed the passions in the city and the urgency to find a new throne for the goddess´ sculpture, who, it is important to add, is the object of a wide cult in Venezuela. This was seen as an opportunity to re-empower the force of her presence ─and therefore, of the Indigenous culture─ in the city.

The government started then to consider the possibility of doing a fiberglass replica of the statue in order to move it to another place "of easier access for the worshippers". To relocate it, they primarily chose the actual neuralgic center of Caracas, the huge fountain of Plaza Venezuela (1940s), but, forced by the resistance of the neighbors ─who were afraid of watching the aquatic square converted into a monumental day shrine of the cult and, even worse, a night shrine─, they decided secondly to place it in the center of the Plaza de los Museos (1936), between the Museo de Bellas Artes and the Museo de Ciencias, both buildings also by Villanueva. There, they even arrived to build a pedestal. Nevertheless, the continuous strong controversy stopped this new decision. For almost two years, the people demanded the government to have respect for the Caracas urban memory, asking: “leave the statue in its sacred site, the highway".

Today, being the statue back in the hands of its owner, the Universidad Central de Venezuela, after a salomonic decision of the court, the city has now a fake Maria Lionza rising on top of the original pedestal in the middle of the Autopista del Este. The worshippers continue to bring her gifts, but the quality of this work is very far from the original, which has been already restored but remains secluded in an atelier of the Ciudad Universitaria de Caracas. The goddess´ plastic clone, looking as cheap as a Barbie, contributes to the general impoverishing and banalization of the Caracas urban space.

A second example of urban transposition in the "Caracas of the Twenty-First century" is what has occurred in the Parque del Este, the most important work of modern landscape architecture by the Brazilian landscape artist Roberto Burle Marx. Around 2004 the announcement was made that in the realm of the park´s biggest lake, Lake 9, the government had taken the decision of “honoring the memory” of an illustrious hero of Venezuela´s Independence War, General Francisco de Miranda, and for doing so it would impose his name to the park and build on Lake 9 a museum with the form of a ship ─Miranda´s Leander─, of twelve stories high, that would be seen from every single spot of the park.The decision ─this time─ carried the seal of approval of the Instituto del Patrimonio Cultural, although with this project the park, a Cultural Good of National Interest listed since 1998, would be affected and disfigured, forcing literally contranatura its genuine modern project.

The sadly famous "Museo Leander", besides the gigantic superficial vessel (which is not really a ship, but a fake to be made of a metallic structure lined in wood), has in addition an important underground area, which meant the emptying of great deal of the lake for its construction, heavily affecting the site´s natural surroundings. This "anti-monument", if ever finished, would inevitably condemn Miranda´s illuminating deeds to a dark pit, to a basement, in a land highly liable to flooding, because is placed between to neighboring creeks.[26] This patrimonial crime intends to do a very clear transpositional operation: by mooring the Leander ship in the middle of a Burlemarxian modern landscape ─a highly bizarre context very distant from its historical reality─, the whole significance of the park is changed, turning it into a thematic park based upon a chapter of the Independence War. Again, here we see a shift to a different ideal, disfiguring an existing landmark instead of building a new project in a new place.

Nevertheless, histories do not substitute each other. And the citizens, proud of the history of Modern Caracas, fighting fiercely against the park´s authorities (Inparques) and the decisions of the government, have sustained a campaign that is already four years long against the Museo Leander (which today is backed by many international organizations, like the IFLA, Docomomo International and the World Monuments Fund).In this moment, the project has stopped. Its immense empty and open hole, though, reminds us that it still is a latent threat against this jewel of landscape architecture… and that the fight should continue, hoping that soon it will only be remembered only as a "a passing nightmare that menaced for a short period of time with its noisy and unaesthetic chillers and fences the magnificent Lake 9, the Avila mountain´s undisputable mirror".[27]

The third case of Caracas transpositions is very recent, dating from 2010. This year, many Latin American countries are preparing the commemorative celebrations of their respective independencies, which in the majority of the cases mean the construction of new public works and monuments in their capital cities. In Venezuela, the anniversary date is April 19th, and at the end of 2009 people were talking in the city that the project of a monumental obelisk was apparently being prepared to be erected in the very heart of the city: the Plaza Bolívar of Caracas. The rumor ended up being truthful. On Sunday, February 8th, all the country´s newspapers announced it: "At the beginning of last week, several thin walls were raised in one of the corner sites of the Plaza Bolívar of Caracas, halfway between the Chancery and the old Town Hall. It seems that it is an obelisk. The monument´s base is a hexagon, with sides of about five feet long, and has already started to rise. It is believed that the obelisk will reach 150 feet high, 36 less than the famous Buenos Aires monument, and would be ready in a month and a half. The management of the works is in hands of the Secretariat of the Presidency of the Republic."[28] On the other hand, the plaza is quite small, its sides barely arriving to 328 feet.

Taking into account that the Plaza Bolívar is the single highest protected heritage site in the whole city ─and maybe in the whole country─, piling up a great number of landmark designations, such a work is an outburst, and it is hard to understand how it could have ever been permitted…

But it is clear that besides dwarfing the scale of the Caracas Cathedral, making look ridiculous the equestrian statue of Simon Bolivar placed in its center and destroying the spatial harmony of this remarkable public space, the gigantic totem would be there in order to transpose on the place a new and very strong meaning.


The Monumento a Colón en el Golfo triste.

"To eradicate: to erase.
To vanish, to remove: it was erased from my memory". [29]

Finally, we will review some of the eradications that have occurred in Caracas during the same period of time. The most polemical has been the violent tearing down of two statues, the only images that existed in the city to pay homage to the memory of Christopher Columbus: the Monument to Columbus in the Parque El Calvario (Giovanni Turini, 1893) and the Monumento a Colón en el Golfo triste, in the Paseo Colón (Rafael de la Cova, 1894).

Leon Battista Alberti wrote in Chapters XVI and XVII, Book VII, of his De re aedificatoria, that statues are “the most excellent of all resources to make last wonderfully the memory" (Alberti 1486).[30] The Albertian sentence has proved to be true along the centuries. The demolition of urban sculpture has been a highly efficient method in all times to graphically express repudiation and trying to erase memory completely.

It is not our purpose to analyze here the contemporary valuation of Columbus in the world. But it is enough to watch the respect which is still held for his monuments in Cuba, a country so politically close to the actual Venezuelan government, to find inexplicable the reasons why it has allowed such fierce attacks to the Admiral´s monuments in Caracas.[31] Even more, considering that both Caracas centenary monuments were not only mere statues standing on the street, but authentic episodes of monumental urban sculpture that built important city fragments.

The Monument to Columbus of the Parque El Calvario (1895), used to dominate the views of the Historic Center from an exceptional location at the top of the famous Steps designed by famous Hurtado Manrique. It was the same architect himself who placed it in this high location, designing the pedestal and duplicating for the statue the same situation it originally held on the pinnacle of the Venezuelan Pavilion at the Chicago´s World´s Columbian Exposition in 1893. As Roldán Esteva-Grillet refers, "the Venezuelan government of the time had commissioned the New York-based sculptor from Verona, Giovanni Turini (1841-1899), the making of two statues: one of Columbus and one of Bolivar, both fabricated initially in gypsum; only the Columbus statue was ready at the moment of the exposition´s opening, although both were casted afterwards in bronze in Turin andbrought finally to the country".[32] This sculptor is also the author of the Garibaldi statue given to the United States by the Italian community that is now in New York´s Washington Square.

For a hundred and ten years, Turini´s statue of Columbus traditionally marked the northern entrance of the Parque El Calvario, with the Admiral´s arm pointing at the city that lies at his feet. This sculpture, together with the park´s rich sculpture collection, was designated as a National Good of Cultural Interest by the Instituto del Patrimonio Cultural in 2009.[33] Nevertheless, the strong and constant political speeches thrown from the presidency of the Republic against "Colonialism", brought as a consequence that: "members of the collective group Coordinadora Popular de Caracas, representing -as they said- thirty-six ethnic groups of the country, climbed on the pedestal of Columbus at El Calvario and covered the statue with a white sheet. Simultaneously, they introduced before the Alcaldía de Caracas a petition: that the statue should be removed from there and that in its place was to be erected one of some Indian chief".[34] Shortly after, Fundapatrimonio removed the statue of Columbus from its pedestal saying than "it shouldn´t continue being worshipped anymore".[35] And there stood the empty pedestal, to the surprise of the passersby, while the Columbus statue is kept away somewhere, and the citizens of Caracas ignore its whereabouts. In the last days of February 2010, and with a great public act, the President and the Mayor of Caracas unveiled on the same place a statue of Venezuela´s Federal War hero, Ezequiel Zamora.

The other Caracas monument to the Admiral was commissioned to the Venezuelan sculptor Rafael de la Cova in 1893. De la Cova was one of the best Venezuelan artists of his time, having studied sculpture in Rome from 1870 to 1877. Among his works is also the equestrian statue of Bolivar that stands in New York´s Central Park. The year of 1883 was the Centennial of the Liberator´s birth and the Venezuelan government “decided to raise an equestrian statue of him at Central Park, which was casted by the local firm Heny & Bounard”.[36] The statue was concluded in 1884 and inaugurated by General Antonio Guzmán Blanco, by then the President of Venezuela.

In this saga of Columbus memorials, the magnificent Monumento a Colón en el Golfo triste links indelibly together the cities of Caracas and New York. A couple of blocks further west on the same 59th Street between Broadway, Central Park West and 8th Avenue, a new urban space would be created that is related in its intentions and scope with the Caracas Paseo Colón: Columbus Circle. This, differently from its Caracas relative, today remains intact and preserved in the New York urban fabric.[37]

Similar to the monument that would be built in Caracas, the ─Manhattan´s─ memorial to Columbus consists of "a rostral column" (allusive to the epic of the discovery) made of Carrara marble eighty feet high, which is crowned by a Columbus statue, made by the artist Gaetano Russo and donated by Italian people to the city, and was unveiled on October 12th, 1892.[38] The Columbian circle would remain since then in its place, marking, as would later do the Caracas Columbus monument in the Parque Los Caobos, the southwestern entrance to a main city park.[39] Knowing that the De la Cova´s Columbus statue was also cast in New York City, we find therefore a line of commemorative columns following one another transnationally, in space and time.

The location in Caracas for the Monumento a Colón en el Golfo Triste was a flower garden, a Columbian promenade, a place with a personality of its own. The new Paseo Colón (1934) was monumentally scenic, highly iconic in its setting on a hill, looking to the west above the leafy Parque de Los Caobos. The Columbus sculpture, this time, was pointing with his right hand to the horizon over the park, and doing so it metaphorically recalled the name with which the Admiral baptized the coast of Paria (the first Venezuelan landscape seen by him): "Los Jardines".

Nevertheless, again in great deal due to the violent governmental discourse, the hate for Columbus the “genocide" increased. And therefore, within the greatest of vandalistic acts never before seen in the city, on October 12th, 2004, "a group of exalted late avengers of the Indians, tore down with a rope around his neck the statue of Columbus from its high marble pedestal",[40] which carried with it in its fall one of the other three allegoric figures, the maiden who symbolized ─nothing less─, Venezuela.

Today also the whereabouts of this second statue remain unknown. The only thing that is left from such a flagrant eradication in the city, is the new name of the Paseo Colon, now "Parque Kutagua of the Indigenous resistance".

Caracas, March 5th, 2010
[1] "Il y de temps òu il y a de l´histoire, et des morceaux de temps òu il n´y en a pas." Peguy, Charles. Clio, dialogue de l´histoire et de l´ȃme païenne. Chartres, (1917).
[2] Walser, Robert. "Grün". Daidalos. N. 51. In Colour. March, (1994): 138-139.
[3] Gómez, Hannia. "Cal". Revista GP. Caracas, December (2008).
[4] Gómez, H. Op. Cit.
[5] Gómez, H. Ibid.
[6] Buisine, Alain. Dictionnaire amoureux et savant des couleurs de Venise. "Couleurs de les saisons". Editions Zulma. Cadeilhan, (1998).
[7] "The limestone from the old Caleras de Sancho have been transformed into a fundamental construction material to build the city of the future". In: Rivero, A. La Vega, en concreto. Empresas Delfino. Editorial Arte. Caracas, (1992): 25.
[8] Lenclos, Jean-Philippe. "The Geography of Colour". Daidalos. N. 51. Op. Cit. (1994): 134.
[9] Rivero, A. Op.Cit. (1992): 25.
[10] Quote by Ad Reinhardt, painter. In: Auer, Gerdhard. Editorial. Daidalos n. 51. In Colour. March, (1994): 23
[11] Toro y Gisbert, Miguel de. Pequeño Larousse Ilustrado. Editorial Larousse. Paris, (1970): 1018.
[12] Brodsky, Joseph. "Guide to a Re-named City". In: Less Than One, Selected Essays. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. New York, (1987).
[13] Gómez, H. "El peligro de los clásicos". Arquitectura, El Diario de Caracas. Caracas, Sunday, October 23rd., (1994).
[14] Gómez, H. "¿De qué color es la piel de Dios?". Ciudad, El Nacional. Caracas, (2004).
[15] Wolfe, Tom. The Painted Word. Bantam Books. New York, (1975): 6.
[16] Villanueva, Adriana. "Se acabó la policromía". http://evitandointensidades.blogspot.com/. Caracas, January 26th, (2010).
[17] Gómez, H. Op.Cit. (2004).
[18] Gaceta Oficial N. Ext. 5.299 / 29-01-1999.
[19] Villanueva, A. Op. Cit. (2010).
[20] Villanueva, A. Ibid. (2010)
[21] Villanueva, A. "De rejas y policromías". El Nacional. Caracas, February 6th, (2010).
[22] Toro y Gisbert, M. Op. Cit. (1970): 564.
[23] Gómez, H. "La autopista Is Almost Right". En_Caracas. N. 1.06. Caracas, May, 28th, (2004).
[24] Gómez, H. Op. Cit. (2004).
[25] "Amaneció destruida la estatua de María Lionza". Agencia Venpres. Caracas, June 6th, (2004).
[26] Gómez, H. "El antimonumento". Opinión. El Nacional. Caracas, September 23rd, (2008).
[27] Gómez, H. Op.Cit. (2008).
[28] Figueroa, Juan Carlos. "Un obelisco por el Bicentenario se levantará en la Plaza Bolívar". El Nacional. Caracas, February 6th, (2010).
[29] Toro y Gisbert, M. Ibid. (1970): 157.
[30] Alberti, Leon Battista. De re aedificatoria. On the art of building in ten books. (translated by Joseph Rykwert, Neil Leach, and Robert Tavernor). Cambridge, Mass. MIT Press, (1988)
[31] "At the end of the Eighteenth-century, in New York city shily initiated a process for rescuing the memory of Columbus, which from 1866 was followed by the city´s Italian community; but is was in Cuba, while it was still a Spanish colony, where a first statue of Columbus was raised, in 1862, made by the Italian Cucchiari, a worlk which still stands today in the center of the patio of the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales in the Museum of the City of La Habana". Esteva-Grillet, Roldán. "Aberración patrimonial". Papel Literario. El Nacional. Caracas, April 4th, (2009): 8-9.
[32] Esteva-Grillet, R. Op. Cit. (2009): 8.
[33] Instituto del Patrimonio Cultural. Municipio Libertador. Catálogo del Patrimonio Cultural. Censo Nacional de Patrimonio. Caracas, (2004): 10-11.
[34] Esteva-Grillet, R. Ibid. (2009): 9.
[35] Esteva-Grillet, R. Idem.
[36] Esteva Grillet, R. Id.
[37] Zawisza, Leszek. Arquitectura y Obras Públicas en el siglo XIX. III. Ediciones de la Presidencia de la República. Imprenta Nacional. Caracas, (1988): 174.
[38] Jackson, Kenneth T., edited by. The Encyclopedia of New York City. "Columbus Circle". The Yale University Press. New Haven & London, (1995): 261
[39] Gomez, H. "El Golfo triste". En_Caracas 1.27. Caracas, October 22nd, (2004).
[40] Esteva Grillet, R. Id.

Presentado en: "Transnational Latinamericanisms, Liminal Places, Culture and Power (T)here". Urban Planning Program. GSAPP, Columbia University in the City of New York. New York City, March 5th, 2010.

Listen to La Colonna Musicale

And so it was later,
As the miller told his tale,
That her face at first just ghostly,
Turned a whiter shade of pale.
-Procol Harum. A Whiter Shade of Pale (1967)

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